Rafael Trujillo was a dick. He ruled as dictator of the Dominican Republic for over 30 years. Following a rebellion, Trujillo was voted into power with 99% of the vote in 1930 with essentially no opposition (after his opponents were subject to military threats). Now the Commander in Chief of the army, Trujillo wielded ultimate power. Of course, he did have his supporters, and under his control, the Dominican Relublic became a founding member of The United Nations, enjoyed a great deal of economic stability, and even saw its first national park. But the cost of this was incredibly high — human rights violations were a daily occurrence, torture and assassinations were routine, and order was maintened through fear and brute force. It is thought that Trujillo was responsible for at least 50,000 deaths (his mum must have been proud). His bloody reign seemed unstoppable.
Enter the Mirabal sisters. Patria, Dede, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal all came of age under Trujillo’s rule. The sisters came from a well-connected middle class family, and they were all feisty and well-educated. With the exception of Dede, all the sisters made the unusual (for the time) step of attending higher education institutions.
While attending law school, Minerva started to learn about her new friends' family members who had been killed (or simply vanished) under the dictator. This, paired with a blossoming knowledge of her uncle;s involvement in the resistance, started to spark something in Minerva.
Shortly after this, Minerva came face to face with Trujillo. In 1949, the family was asked to attend a party Truillo was hosting (I say asked, I mean forced Trujillo liked to ensure his parties had a high percentage of pretty young women). During the party Trujillo’s men separated Minerva from the family, seating her at his table. Accounts from here seem to vary and are a little fuzzy, but what we do know is that Trujillo made a move on Minerva and she rejected him. The family then swiftly left the party. This was was a risky move.
Unsurprisingly, Trujillo was not often told no and did not respond well to Minerva rebuffing his sexual advances or to the family leaving the party before he did (a big no-no, as it suggested disrespect towards the dictator). And so he ordered the entire Mirabal family's imprisonment.
The family was eventually released from prison. However, Trujillo blocked Minerva from continuing her legal education and maintained a constant ebb of harassment towards her (again — his mum must be proud).
The family's every move was now being monitored. Minerva was reported to Trujillo’s forces several times for crimes including not toasting Trujillo at dinner. Soon, Minerva started to become more active in resisting Trujillo. Her youngest sister, Maria Teresa, quickly jumped on board, outraged at the intimidation and human rights abuse that had seeped not only into the Mirabal household but the entire country.
Then on June 14, 1959, Patria witnessed the Luperion Invasion, an attempt by ousted Dominicans to topple Trujillo’s government. The rebels were quickly and brutally crushed, but rather than being warned of the consequences of fighting Trujillo, Patria was inspired by the rebels. This is perhaps not that surprising, because Trujillo’s years of continued pressure on the family had only ever served to encourage them to fight back.
Patria went home and joined forces with Minerva and Maria Teresa. Round their kitchen table, the sisters hatched a plan to continue the rebels' fight and put an end to Trujillo’s reign of terror.
The group called themselves the Movement of the Fourteenth of June, named after the slain rebels. With the help of their husbands, the three sisters started to distribute leaflets and pamphlets detailing Trujillo’s crimes, the people he had killed, and the resistance's work. The sisters started to become known under the moniker Las Mariposas, or The Buttleflies.
In addition to their written work, the group slowly started to weaponize. Once more the sisters sat around their kitchen table, this time making bombs from fireworks. They also gathered weapons, learned how to use them, and began to talk about taking a much more radical step — assassination.
Their attempted assassination of Trujillo in 1960 failed, and Minerva, Marie Teresa, and their husbands were thrown in jail. But although Trujillo had survived, the sisters' attempt on his life meant his political career was heading towards its demise. An assassination attempt of his own (on the Venezuelan president) had failed. He had lost the support of the Catholic Church, his former powerful allies, America, and even the top tiers of Dominican society. And now, the work of the Mirabal sisters and others like them was starting to threaten his already weakening grasp on power.
Trujillo did what he did best: he tortured and executed many of the captured rebels, but it didn’t quell the murmurings of discontent that were now becoming ever louder. To make matters worse, in 1960, growing international pressure forced Trujillo to release the incarcerated Mirabal sisters. The butterflies were once again free.
But Trujillo became fixated on the idea that the root of his problem was Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal.
Warning – This next bit is rough.
On November 25, 1960, the sisters were driving home after visiting their husbands in prison. Their jeep was stopped by secret police, who included Trujillo’s right hand man, Victor Alicinio Pena Rivera. The sisters and their driver were made to get out the car. They were taken to a sugarcane field and separated, then secret police beat and strangled each of the sisters. Their bodies were taken back to the jeep, which was then pushed off a cliff, in an effort to make their deaths look like an accident.
But this isn’t the end of the Mirabal sisters' story.
You’ll be pleased to know that the cover-up didn’t work. The public soon realised that Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa had been assassinated. The people were angry and the tide turned against Trujillo in almost an instant.
People were inspired by the sisters and keen to pick up where they had left off, as the Mirabal sisters had done for the Luperion Invasion rebels. Less then six months after thier deaths, in May 1961, Trujillo’s own car was ambushed and he was shot in an assination carried out by Dominican rebels with American backing.
The sisters became known as national heroes, and their sister Dede opened a museum that told their story. The Mirabal family also continued their legacy: Minerva’s daughter went on to become the Dominican Republic's Under-Secretary of Foreign Relations and Dede’s son the Vice President.
This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted with permission.
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.